When the premise of your UK-set miniseries is that Ben Barnes plays a charming Londoner who seduces an elegant recent divorcee portrayed by Julia Ormond, and that the show is called Gold Digger because that’s what her children think he is, you really don’t need to say any more. I will watch it.
But Marnie Dickens’ series, which runs an economical six episodes and is currently available in the U.S. on the streaming platform Acorn TV, does have more to say. It’s just that the rest of it isn’t nearly as good as the main bit.
Gold Digger obviously sets out to upend notions of gender and age bias, focusing on the less common dynamic (in TV at least) of an older woman getting involved with a younger man. Here, Julia (Ormond—both leads conveniently share the first names of their actors) has just turned 60 alone. Her husband (Alex Jennings, always great at playing absolute shits) left her a year ago for her best friend with whom he was having an affair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and her three children are busy with their own dramas. Eldest Patrick (Sebastian Armesto) supposedly has the “perfect life” with his wife and children, but is restless. Middle daughter Della (Jemima Rooper) is adrift romantically and professionally, and youngest son Leo (Archie Renaux) doesn’t take responsibility for anything, and frankly doesn’t really seem to fit in with the family at all.
All of this leaves Julia on her own one afternoon at her former employer, the British Museum, where a handsome young man, Benjamin (Barnes) strikes up a conversation and asks her on a date. From the start she’s wary of why he would be lavishing flirtatious attention on her, buying into the societal assumption that women of a certain age are no longer sexually attractive. But Benjamin is persistent, and eventually, Julia doesn’t really seem to care what his motivations are. She’s happy, and they’re having fun together.
The back and forth between Julia and Benjamin is excellent, with Benjamin keeping things uncertain with cagey charm. It’s impossible to know if he’s sincere, and even when he shares personal details, they’re vague enough to not be easy to track down. Patrick is the most dogged at attempting to out Benjamin as a fraud, yet when Julia is confronted with a litany of lies that he has told her, he’s able to explain them away. Further, the more she attempts to pay for things and support him financially, the more he balks and appears affronted that she would offer. And yet, he ultimately accepts.
The psychological and emotional story here is certainly fascinating, and Ormond in particular is incredibly compelling as a woman torn between her desires and practicalities. However, woven throughout the episodes are also a series of flashbacks that indicate trauma in her past that her children were also witness to, involving her ex-husband. It’s not hard to guess at what happened, but unfortunately the whole ordeal down to the final reveal feels borrowed from a completely different story. Similarly, while each episode has a loose connection to a different character at the start, it’s not carried through nor does it ever feel important. The time we spend with Julia’s children, her ex-husband, and her ex-best friend is cursory at best, as if to simply prove that they do, in fact, have lives. The series manages to pick up and drop an alarming amount of story threads in its short run—time that would be better spent investigating the question of romance and sincerity between Benjamin and Julia, and allowing them to just, you know, have some more fun.
It’s not just the chemistry that the two have that is so intoxicating, including some very steamy intimate scenes. Gold Digger takes place mostly in Devon, at Julia’s sprawling country house where breathtaking coastal walks appear to be the norm. It’s a cozy, if somewhat haunted, place for Julia to call home. Directed by Vanessa Caswill and David Evans, the series is gorgeously shot in a way that augments the drama of the bust-ups and reunions repeated throughout, where you can feel the crisp weather and patter of rain that soaks almost every scene (although that atmosphere also can drag down the more dour moments, as well).
Unfortunately though, Gold Digger is never as good when its focus turns away from Julia and Benjamin, and its revelations in the finale feel abrupt and too easily sewn up. On the whole, the miniseries misses an opportunity to really lean into its unconventional premise and explore both Benjamin and Julia’s pasts, and how their experiences inform their current relationship. And yet, there is still something worthwhile about the way it addresses, at least in part, considerations about love and aging. Over and over again, there is a disbelief that a young man like Benjamin would be attracted to Julia for any reason other than her money. But despite the series’ other issues, if you don’t fall in love with Ormond while watching it, you are the one who should be questioned.
Gold Digger is currently streaming on Acorn TV, with the final two episodes premiering Monday, May 18th.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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